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Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
by Howard Eiland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars like Benjamin, endlessly fascinating, 8 Dec. 2014
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Earlier this year I was in Paris, a city I find, like Benjamin did, endlessly fascinating. On a beautiful spring morning I made my way to Benjamin's last Paris address on the Rue Dombasle off of the Rue Vaugirard in the 15th Arrondissement. The small apartment block at no.10 is still very much as Benjamin would have known it, although the letting rates and property value are now astronomical! There is a small plaque above the main entrance giving the philosophers dates and telling us that he was a translator, philosopher and literary critic. I asked the proprietor of a pet shop at the apartment entrance whether or not she was aware that a prominent philosopher once lived there. I even pointed the plaque out to her. She had absolutely no idea, she looked at me as I was an oddball or worse!'Je ne sais pas', she repeated! The location was almost picturesque with bijoux snack bars and elegant boutiques. There was a quasi park area with children playing on a carousel. I thought how different this scene was from the dark days of 1940, with the German invasion, occupation from which Benjamin had to escape from. He was certainly on the Gestapo death list. But then I thought of the picturesque scene, in the now-time,'jetztzeit' as Benjamin would term it, and the way this pleasant scene was in some way 'mythical'(another Benjamin key term) in the present context of conflict, carnage in the Ukraine, in Gaza and Syria, global protests against 'austerity', sanctions against Russia, what some are calling an imminent Third World War. Benjamin, in his constellative mode of critique, always related any historical event, atrocity, to the now, and even to the future. Those 'dark days' of 1940 are re-emerging now especially with the widespread rise of fascism/Nazism. As Benjamin often said 'There is no document of civilization which is not, at the same time, a document of barbarism.'Benjamin's critical thought is as relevant now as it was at the time he was writing. All this might seem an odd way of starting a review of a new major biography of Benjamin. But in a sense it is this insight of 'now-time' which is lacking in this work. Eiland and Jennings write a very conventional narrative chronology of Benjamin's life. The title 'A Critical life' seemed to promise more. They position themselves in a kind of hermetically sealed Kantian, detached space where the 'now' culture/politics has no time or space. In fact the kind of Bourgeois narrow field of perception, vision Benjamin detested. But having said this it was mostly a hugely enjoyable read. Hopefully it will attract a wider readership outside of academia. Eiland and Jennings provide lucid and readable overviews of most of Benjamin's complex theories like: the early and enormously pivotal 'Trauerspiel'book ('The Origin of German Tragic Drama'); 'The critique of Violence', his work on particularly Goethe, and, of course 'The work of Art in the age of its Mechanical Reproduction. But having read its nearly 800 pages I felt no closer to Benjamin. Perhaps like Kafka, Benjamin was never going to be open to standard chronological/linear biography. More than almost every important intellectual of recent decades, with the possible exception of Michel Foucault, Benjamin's life, his sometimes cryptic work, was/is the least amenable to narrative continuity. Benjamin, as far as I know, never encouraged any kind biography (although I think Scholem contemplated one after Benjamin's death). Like, Freud he seemed to be critical of the very form. If he had contemplated any kind of biography it surely would have been cast in the mode of montage with no logos, no continuing narrative to old age and death. Benjamin's actual death, suicide, which has been much written of, was, as with his life, an enigma. The book recounts his fiendships, colleagues, quite well, among them: Gershom Scholem, Bertold Brecht, Gustav Wyneken, Seigfried Kracauer, Franz Hassel, and of course Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Adorno comes over as one of Benjamin's best friends, despite his acerbic responses to essays Benjamin submitted. It was Adorno who arranged several stipends for Benjamin, a lifeline for one who increasingly faced financial disaster. Scholem comes over as a life-long friend, but one Benjamin kept his distance from, especially in matters Judaism, and his insistence that Benjamin move to Jerusalem. It is perhaps in his relationships with women that we learn more about the 'real' Benjamin. More than other accounts we learn that Benjamin tended to love affairs with complex, difficult, highly intelligent women like the extrovert Latvian revolutionary Asja Lacis, and Dora, who became his wife. All these relationships were complex and acrimonious. I don't think there was a strong sexual attraction for Benjamin but women were stimulated by his intellect and erudition. It also seems that there was an element of immaturity in Benjamin's amorous make-up, as when he become infatuated with Olga Parem, a Russian/German woman. He proposed to her and was abrubtly rejected. We also have a revealing account of Benjamin's secretive affair with Greta, Adorno's wife, through a number of intimate letters between them, although we don't know whether or not this became an intimate affair in the sexual sense. In another review from a prestigious newspaper the idea was projected that Benjamin was a frequent visitor of prostitutes, but this is hardly mentioned. There might have been a half truth here, he wrote extensively on prostitution especially in the Arcades Project, but in his later years Benjamin would not have been able to afford such luxuries. The notion that he had a gambling addiction is only mentioned a couple of times.

Much of the book is devoted to quite detailed accounts of Benjamin's attempts to initiate the production of critical journals, or to submit critical articles/essays, here such eminent figure as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Thomas Mann were involved in these ventures. But very few of them materialised. No doubt all this material is valuable in understanding Benjamin as a critical journalist in the mould of Karl Kraus who he admired from a critical perspective. But I had the impression that much of this reads more like a list of literary efforts rather than anything adding to our understanding of Benjamin either in the affective sense, but also in the sense of his actual critique of conventional discourse. Indeed his work on allegory and the evasiveness, aporetic movement of discourse and language, sometimes sounds like deconstruction and Derrida 'Avant le lettre'. Even though Benjamin here comes over as a much more engaging, illuminating writer than Derrida, who can sometimes sound pedantic and willfully abstruse.

Before I read the book I was looking forward to learning more about Benjamin's notion of experience; moreover the experience of the city. Benjamin mentions several times, in letters, in the various Konvolut's of the Arcades Project', his love of mostly great European cities; including Naples, Moscow, Riga, Marseilles and of course the city of his birth Berlin. But it is Paris in exile where Benjamin found his most radiant and chiaroscuro affection, love of the city. But strangely Eiland and Jennings include the city (Paris) more a kind of occasional opaque backdrop. All we get are tantalising allusions to a favourite hotel, or bar,the Hotel Istria on the Rue Champagne, or the Hotel Regina de Passy on the Rue de la Tour, but nothing much more. Benjamin's muultifarious deployment of 'experience' has much to do with actual locations in Paris, partly taken from Breton and Aragon. He was undoubtedly a kind of Flaneur, collecting myriad city experiences. The Arcades Project is full references, exposures, histories of Paris. For instance he describes how early one clear morning he is looking down on this 'gigantic' city from one of the towers of Notre Dame and wondering how long it will last, will it also become a mass of ruins, just like one of the lost or devoured cities of antiquity? A note of prismatic allegory here from the 'Trauerspiel'. Also a note on the Place du Maroc in the 19th arrondissement, how it projects the tones, illuminations (profane) of French colonialism. He adores Paris in a way he could never do in a city like London. The ghost's (he was fascinated with revenants, spectral images, aparitions) of Paris are vibrantly resonant for him: the Great 1789 Revolution, 1848, 1871 and the Paris Commune. These 'past' events are very much in the now jetztzeit', as are the forgotten events, the voices of the dead. Conversing with the dead. Here he is not talking of official monuments (he admires the Commune for pulling down the ossified memorial to French oppression and imperialism, the Column Vendome .)Here his affinity with Marxism is resonant. He was never a rigid orthodox Marxist although his work on the Trauerspiel and allegory probably had more influence on Adorno's Marxism, especially 'negative dialectics' than is commonly acknowledged. He is not concerned with the 'great' men of history, but of those erased out of official history; the detritus, discarded objects, all within the prismatic vision of Klee's 'Angel of History'. Also, there is not very much on Benjamin as a collector; a collector of toys, ballet shoes, medical instruments, post cards of Paris. He also collected Paris street (Rue) names. Fascinated by such names as the Avenue de la Motte-Piquet, or the Boulevard Arago, and those named after Saints such as the Boulevard St Michel All part of his sometimes elliptical notion of 'experience', the 'colour of experience'.I know of no other modern writer who can so capture the 'Aura' the tonality and, and physiognomy, experience of the city-scape, but little of this is mentioned. The sections on Baudelaire are correctly detailed and thorough - although there is not a great deal here I did not know already. Also very little mention of Freud and psychoanalysis, of which Benjamin was increasingly fascinated: the whole resonance of dreams, which goes back to his Berlin childhood. I could go on with the omissions, and this review has its obvious omissions. The account of Benjamin's tragic last days/hours in the small port town of Port Bou, on the French/Spanish border are surprisingly lacking in detail. Indeed the much smaller biography of Esther Leslie (2007) gives a far more interesting and detailed account .

Before I had any knowledge of this Benjamin Biography I was hoping that an enterprising film maker would produce a film about Benjamin shot on location in Paris and other cities. Indeed I am very surprised that a film, or even a TV documentary on Benjamin has not, as far as I know, been attempted. More than most intellctuals Benjamin, in 'reality' and in myth is the most amenable figure for TV, filmic projection. It would probably be best directed by someone like Jean Luc Godard, who has an instinctive empathy with Brechtian Epic, and montage effects. But he is probably too advanced in years now for such an undertaking. Benjamin was probably the most fascinating and important theorist of vision (in the city) of the 20th century. One important part of experience and illumination is what he called the 'dialectics of seeing' The momentary recognition and illumination of past and present. I can't imagine an event like ' Apocatastasis' ( the restitution of all things after the end of time) being projected in words, as it could be on the screen. I have no doubt that Benjamin would have relished the idea of his life - or, in a more germane light, fragments of his life, being recast, re-projected on film, he was a great film goer, mostly 'silent', and took a keen interest in the technology of film and film production. But as it stands this new biography, despite some reservations, is overall the best general work/biography on Benjamin to have emerged. In terms of standard biography, it is unlikely to be surpassed for a long time.

Fresh Bait ( L'Appāt ) [DVD] [1995]
Fresh Bait ( L'Appāt ) [DVD] [1995]
Dvd ~ Marie Gillain

5.0 out of 5 stars 'People are not evil in theselves, but they commit evil acts' Aristotle, 29 July 2014
During the 90's there were a number of French films dealing with what one critic termed 'Tales of Ordinary Evil'.Other films in this category included: Christian Challonge's Docteur Petiot (1990), Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie (1995), and J'ai pas Sommeil (Claire Denis, 1994). All these films (and others) incorporate a kind of contextual - social - overlay: it is not just a matter of subjective 'evil', but also the sense of acts of 'evil' prevailing in a particular social/cultural formation. Of the other films mentioned L'Apaat presents us with arguably the most ordinary characters of all. Nathalie is a young Parisian woman who, with her friends, absolutely want's to conform, participate fully in a materialistic, consumer culture.The film opens with Nathalie and her girlfriend standing on the Metro reading out funny tit bits (quite overtly sexual) from a celebrity gossip mag. Nathalie (played by Marie Gillain) is a most charming and attractive young woman who lives and works in Paris (Marie Gillain was actually born in Belgium, but she comes over as echt Parisian). She also at night chats up richer and older men in bars where she has a good relationship with the bar owners. She brings in more affluent customers and arranges dates with the men she finds more attractive. I suppose it could be seen as a mild form of prostitution, although it is not made entirely clear whether or not she has sex with the older men she likes.There is one scene where a younger client giving her a lift gets too intimate too soon, she resists and is thrown out of the car and called a whore ('Putain'). She certainly has a long list of her 'clients', with their business cards. With her boyfriend Eric, and their other 'hang around' friend Bruno they concoct a dubious plan. Using Nathalie as bait they arrange dates with the most affluent of her clients in order to rob them. And with the money they rob they plan to set up a small fashion retail business in America. What the film reveals most sharply is that they are all very inexperienced thieves.Initially Nathalie checks out her clients apartment, checking locks, alarms etc, and making sure her partners in crime gain easy access, she then meets the victim and gets him in a relaxed mood. When the first victim suggests that they go out to meet a friend at a restaurant, Nathalie implores him that she would much prefer a cosy night in. Here she is a very convincing seductress. But despite all this they seriously botch the robberies naively believing that they only need to 'rough up' their prey a little to lay their hands on the required money. But of course they didn't count on the victim presenting problems, not necessarily having the ready cash, or simply refusing to reveal cash, despite threats of torture etc. And the more they demand money, the more violent their ill thought out actions become. The first victim in the film is the 'small-time' lawyer Antoine, marvellously played by the superb Phlippe Duclos (later the fascinatingly dark character of Judge Roban in the TV series 'Spiral'), who ends up being horribly tortured and mutilated before he is killed. Nathalie, who is slapped around by the robbers to make it look real, is here probably the most childish of all, having little idea that she is an accomplice in a most brutal murder, and just as culpable in law as the actual murderers. She sits in an ajoining room turning her head phones up to blank out Antoine's screams of pain. Tavernier's film is not as stylish in terms mise-en-scene as say Christian de Challonge's Dr Petiot, having an almost documentary kind of realism.Nathalie's venues of work (a fairly run down barely surviving fashion boutique)and residence, probably in the Belleville district, are fairly low key, in contrast to the obviously more affluent areas of her clients, mostly filmed at night. The second victim Alain (played by Richard Berry)makes a more ardent attempt to gain the robbers confidence, but to no avail. The actual murder (stabbing) here, unlike the murder of Antoine, is not graphically shown, and some way is more chilling in its cinematic effect.The film is based on actual events in Paris. And in reality, I believe, involved cosiderably more murders.

Overall the film (like the other films mentioned above, and subsequent films) seems to be addressing the question of a certain lack, not only in the lead characters, but in the vacuity of modern society with its obsession with the 'look', celebrity culture, me culture, etc. But the film does not really reduce 'evil' to either category; perhaps more suggesting an undecidable cross-fertilisation of both. This ambiguity, this human lack, which as Freud pointed out has so many unanswerable vicissitudes, is most vividly projected in the last scene of the film, where Nathalie, at the Police Station, on the verge of being charged with these 'unspeakable' crimes, looks up at the prosecuting head policeman and asks, with such genuine innocence;'will I be able to visit my father for Christmas? In this sense Tavernier's film is a powerful achievement in making the main character (the bait) so likeable and sympathetic (for me certainly) despite all her folly naivety, and surely a touch of narcissism, so heavily inscribed in our culture

Brahms: Symphonies Nos.1 & 2
Brahms: Symphonies Nos.1 & 2
Price: £8.64

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A fine Brahms Symphony No. 2, a more problematic No 1, 22 May 2014
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The previous reviewer praised these performances as 'light', 'transparent' etc. This is true and a more lean, transparent approach can shed a new light on these much performed/recorded works. The performance of the first symphony is in many ways admirable with not an ounce of over-blown indulgent rhetoric. Jurowski mostly plays what is there in the score. But surely the opening 'Un poco sostenuto', what Donald Tovey called 'a gigantic procession', needs more weight? And it is possible to play this opening with plenty of weight without resorting to portentous heaviness, as demonstrated in Harnoncourt's recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. The whole of this huge first movement has a tragic tone not fully conveyed here. The Allegro, with its sharp accents and minor key harmonies needs more thrust. Those trenchant cross-rhythms initiated in the lower registers of the strings, at the end of the exposition require a stronger sense of dynamic contour and rhythmic tension. I listened to an old 1943 NBC broadcast with Toscanini conducting and here the whole Beethovenian power of the music is overpowering as it should be. I have never heard those trenchant cross-rhythms played with such an engagement with the intrinsic drama of the music. The second and third movements are played with considerable eloquence with well chosen tempi, but at times a note of blandness crept in, especially in the third intermezzo-like movement 'Un poco Allegretto e grazioso', where I didn't hear much of Brahms's 'grazioso'. The C minor introduction to the finale is suitably dark and well paced. But by the time we reach the bar before the 'piu andante' with the dramatic fff entry of the timpani in an arresting roll, everything sounded rather tame inhibiting the incredible contrast with the following glorious C major horn call. Jurowski conducted the rest of the 'Allegro' well with fairly swift tempo. The great tune, often compared with the theme in the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth, was well contoured and never dragged out, as is often the case. Jurowski pulls out all the stops for the coda, which has a fitting note of jubilation. One odd detail; just before the tutti reappearance of the great Chorale theme ( for Tovey 'the most solemn note in the whole symphony') Jurowski makes a considerable ritardando in the strongly rhythmic 'presto' which precedes the tutti chorale theme, no doubt to enhance the themes noble effect. In fact the chorale is more impressive in terms of contrast without such slowing down as demonstrated by many eminent conductors, including Klemperer and Furtwangler. The only other conductor I know who makes a similar ritardando is Hermann Abendroth in his various 'historical' recordings of the symphony. This is strange. I can't imagine the young Russian conductor taking a lead from from a conductor who died in 1956, who was steeped in the German romantic tradition of conducting! But stranger things have happened in the world of orchestral conducting!

I felt that Jurowski empathised more with Brahms's Second Symphony. in fact this recording (live from the Festival Hall London) has received glowing reviews from some quarters. Jurowski, again, does not impose his interpretation of the work. It is not an interventionist performance. In the first movement everything flows naturally. Jurowski has a wonderful sense of pacing and contour in the 'Allegro non troppo'. And I have rarely heard the LPO play with this kind of empathy and precision, with such a rich sonority of tone. Jurowski takes the first movement repeat, which pays off with a beautifully lyrical lead back into the exposition in the woodwind; another couple of bars of music in fact! The development section, with rich counterpoint, is most clearly articulated. The F sharp minor trombone clash, which initiates a range of remote tutti modulations in the minor, sounds quite well, but I would have welcomed a touch more drama here. Again, in the Toscanini broadcast, mentioned earlier, the trombones sound baleful, like roaring lions, which continue into the minor key sequences. Similarly the second movement 'Adagio non troppo' is well contoured, with a natural sounding pace. I would have liked a stronger element of drama in the movements stormy interruptions. I couldn't hear much of what Tovey termed 'that weird moaning in the trombone' in the agitated crescendo just before the movements coda, which is delivered with exceptional clarity. But overall Jurowski, although aware of the works many moods and registers, does not particularly emphasise the darker side of this 'lyrical' symphony. These moments are intoned and clearly audible, they are just more integrated into the works admirable vicissitudes. For those more attracted to the darker elements the Klemperer recording is a good recommendation, still sounding well in clearly defined stereo, with the superb earlier/original Philharmonia Orchestra, despite being recorded in the late fifties. There is also a superb recording (mono only) from 1952, again with the Philharmonia, with Toscanini from London's Festival Hall, where the maestro conducted two concerts devoted to the symphonic music of Brahms. The lighter tone of the third and fourth movements are well delivered by Jurowski and the LPO; the finale having just the right balance between high spirits, jubilation and sustained rhythmic control. Jurowski wisely deploys antiphonal first and second violins which really pays off particularly in the finale with its many intricacies of counterpoint, clearly audible in this natural sounding recording. I would rank this LPO performance as definitely one of the top current recommendations. The Harnoncourt recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, which I slightly prefer, for its scrupulous detail and superb playing, is a good alternative as a modern recording. It is remarkable that compared with these 'state of the art' modern recordings, I could actually hear more detail, especially in the finale from brass and timpani in the old Toscanini broadcast from 1943. But of course it is in mono, and the overall sound, although clear, distorts occasionally, and is replete with surface noise.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6; Selected Romances, Op.6 & 73
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6; Selected Romances, Op.6 & 73
Offered by positivenoise
Price: £13.22

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Nezet-Seguin conducts a straight-forward 'Pathetique with a charming coupling., 6 Mar. 2014
Yannick Nezet-Seguin is certainly one of the most acclaimed of todays younger conductors. Nezet-Seguin is 39, quite young in conductorial terms. I have heard several of his concerts, all with the LPO, and although variable, overall he is a promising conductor and musician. I particularly remember a fine Bruckner 8, surpassing many older conductors. In the CD notes we learn that this French-Canadian conductor grew up with the Pathetique Symphony, that it was the first major work he conducted as musical director of the Metropolitan Orchestra in Montreal. And it is the work he chose to conduct on his first DG CD. Of course in a sense DG were taking something of a risk with so many recordings of this symphony in the current catalogue. Any new recording needs very special qualities to compete in the 'classical' music market.

Nezet-Seguin sustains the opening quite well without indulging in too much gloom, playing what is written. By the time we reach the build up to the exposition I felt the brass fanfares to be distinctly understated. The big D major melody is played in a quite straight- forward manner with a minimum of rhetorical effect, which works quite well, even if at moments there was a degree of blandness. The ff crash which initiates the 'Allegro vivo' development section was accurately executed,gaining from antiphonally placed violins, although it didn't have the dramatic impact of the classic Toscanini or Mravinsky recorded performances (the former from an NBC broadcast from 1938, the latter from another DG recording from 1955). As the huge and dramatic development progressed I felt that the great tonal shifts and dynamic contrasts were well played, but they really need to be held together more cogently. A certain lack of dramatic coherence. And the solemn trombone intonations in B minor of the Russian Orthodox Mass of the Dead failed to make their lugubrious effect. The great climax, with Wotan-like descending trombones was certainly well played, and well conducted, but did not intone the sense of catastrophe heard with master conductors like Mravinsky, Toscanini and Furtwangler. One curiosity. I couldn't hear the final two pp 'morendo' timpani taps in the movements coda. I am not sure whether this was a technical recording fault (which should have been rectified), or a mistake of the player, which seems unlikely?

The second movement, which takes the style of a waltz, also had a feeling of blandness.with a lack of elegance and 5/4 lilt implicit in the music. The trio also was bland, the persistent mediant pedal on timpani sounding more like a run-through. I certainly missed the note of Slavic melancholy here so idiomatically achieved by Mravinsky.

Nezet-Seguin conducted the great G major third movement march in a straight-forward manner. The opening busy theme of triplet motion sounded very concise and accurate, but as this first subject develops I felt no sense of expectation and excitement. And when the great tutti march breaks forth it all sounded a tad light-weight. It was well sprung with precise rhythms, but towards the end I simply missed that sense of menace just beneath the tone of triumph. The great tragic finale gained from being played in a direct and forward moving manner. Absolutely no conductorial emotional overlay, as is often the case. The second subject hymn like refrain didn't sound as haunting as it can, but it was well contoured, with strictly observed dynamic registers. The huge climaxes which follow were not overdone. The distant stroke of a gong (which Tovey termed 'the most ominous sound in the orchestra') was discreetly incorporated without any loss of its unusual effect. The B minor coda with its mood of 'utter despair' was compellingly shaped. I just missed that final sense of catastrophe found in the master conductors already mentioned.

It was a good idea to include, as a coupling,a selection from Tchaikovsky's Romances for violin and piano. Beautifully played by Lisa Batiashvili, and sensitively accompanied by Nezet-Seguin. But charming as these are, I can't imagine many would buy this CD for the coupling. Overall this is probably among the best performances (well recorded, although not one of DG's best) of the Pathetique now currently available. The problems really come into perspective when compared with the now dead conductors mentioned above. After reviewing this CD I played right through the 1938 Toscanini NBC broadcast performance to confirm my criticisms of the new CD. And I was taken into a completely different sound-scape. With Toscanini Tchaikovsky's tragic drama is fully realised, and at times it is almost too intense to listen to. The kind of performance which supersedes all ones ideas of an 'ideal' performance. And strange as it might seem I heard so much more orchestral detail in this old NBC broadcast, of 76 years ago, than in this brand new 2013 'state of the art' high-tech recording.

Spiral - Series 4 [DVD] [2013]
Spiral - Series 4 [DVD] [2013]
Dvd ~ Caroline Proust
Price: £10.94

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I can't wait for round five of this 'so French' crime drama, 4 April 2013
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As many commentators have noted 'Spiral' (Engrenages)gets better with each series. Series 4, if anything, is even more complex in its exploration of the interaction between the main players, and what makes them what they are. Also it has a coda which is as intense as anything I can surely out Hitchcock's Hitchcock in terms of suspense. And it is darker and more dramatic than anything in Hitchcock in its bleak realism. Indeed the only consoling note in this coda (which even has a Wagnerian inflection - a 'Gotterdammerung' tonality) is that it so clearly leaves everything hanging for series 5. Caroline Proust, as Police Captain Laure Berthaud, has divided opinion, some finding her compelling and enchanting, in a slightly picaresque manner.Others finding her overdone, too volatile and impulsive. I was captivated by her, both through Proust's excellent acting portrayal, and the complexity of her character in this role. In the Spiral lexicon she is unique, the only character virtually untainted by corruption. She is no angel as a dedicated cop who can deploy tough, sometimes violent techniques, to meet her ends. But in this fourth episode it seems that through her eratic, impulsive tendencies she is facing even more trouble, not only in the sense of a prosecuting investigation of her shooting and killing the main villain at the end of series three, but also the relentless misogyny of her new boss, Police Commissioner Herville (Nicolas Briancon), and, as a result of Herville's Iago like scheming, the immanent betrayal by her old cop partner Gilou, known for his whore-mongering and drug abuse. I was amazed by how many facial expressions Caroline Proust could project here from almost frenzied frustration, to the most rapid visage transformations in the contour of her charming and not so charming smiles. Laure's pose at the end of series three, a full double-handed gun aim position in a dank subterranean urban location where the killer is caught mutilating one of his female victims, is as iconic as any shot of Sarah Lund in the Danish crime series, 'The Killing'. In addition in series 4 we also have another glimpse into Laure's rather uncoordinated private life, her seeming inability to sustain a sexual relationship. It seems that her current relationship is about to rapidly decline again. Perhaps she never really has a work cut off point. Perhaps she continues to be a cop in her relationships? Spiral, more than many other TV crime drama series, including 'The Wire', focuses on a whole range of urgent contemporary themes/issues: institutional corruption, drug/arms trafficking,prostitution and human trafficking, drug abuse, border control, immigration, racism and xenophobia, urban dislocation and ghettoisation, child sexual abuse,sexual obsession, terrorism, gang warfare, police brutality, sexism and misogyny, the labyrinthine codes and misfigurations of the French judicial system, among many other topics.

Initially Josephine Karlsson (played by Audrey Fleurot), as the ambitious young lawyer and advocate, came over as a dubious character, side-stepping and bending many of the legal rules, and maybe getting a little too close to her clients without always realising the danger she was exposing herself to. In series 4 we see her in the precarious role of defence lawyer for undocumented immigrants, some actually related to a dangerous Kurdish arms trafficking ring (actually a kind of Kurdish mafia). We also learn more about her, how she was affected (damaged) by her abusive father from childhood. She is anathema to the police, especially to Laure, who is aware of her hatred towards the police. But I started to feel sympathy for her as someone who obtains a relatively respected, professional legal position, but then puts that respect and position in danger. In this latest series her professional misconduct almost costs her her life. She turns to her legal colleague Pierre Clement (Gregory Fitoussi) for comfort and sexual gratification. But has she made another damaging mistake? Right from the first episode we learn that Clement can involve himself in corruption not only in his choice of associates and friends, but also in his flagrant obstruction of the course of justice which is noted by the ever fascinating Judge Roban, but shelved by the judge, thus providing him with degree of power over Clement. Josephine Karlsson is a most attractive woman. A sexual attraction she does not hesitate to exploit for her own desires, both sexual and vocational. She looks particularly ravishing in court sessions as she eloquently and truculently defends a client, adorned in full legal attire.

Perhaps the most complex and dark character of all is the already mentioned examining magistrate Judge Roban played by the excellent Philippe Duclos. Here I can't help thinking of Cervantes' description of Don Quixote,'he with the doleful countenance', when seeing Roban's face/expressions. Throughout all 4 series he comes over as an eloquent, erudite and demanding, almost pedantic judge. But we also learn of his tendency to cruelty in his cross examinations, and his rampant misogyny.In one episode he is asked by Pierre Clement, 'do you have a problem with women' to which he replies, 'why don't you'. There is a particulary eerie scene in series 1 where he learns of a young woman's suicide by jumping off of a railway bridge and falling under a train. This is a woman who Roban framed as an accessory to the murder of her own child who was actually killed and mutilated by a mad housemaid. When Roban hears of the woman's fate he makes a clandestine visit to the actual site of the innocent woman's suicide. His morbid fascination here suggests a level of sadism and perversion which exceed the negative relationship he has with his dying mother which we learn of in series 3. Although we also learn that in the hospital while visiting his dying mother he contemplates, at one point, smothering her with a pillow and is only stopped when his brother enters his mothers hospital room. In series 4, in his handling of a young woman rape victim, where he sides with the 'innocent' suspect, we have a virtual repeat of the earlier case with the woman again committing suicide. One of the young rape victim's last complaints against Roban was that she had the feeling that he was sexually excited when hearing the details of her rape ordeal, actually prompting her for more explicit detail. But ironically and cynically in series 4 we learn that the good judge is almost demolished professionally for his quite honest exposure of the corrupt practices of another judge. The cases of the two suicide women are lost in translation as it where. But Spiral is full of irony and paradox, not always explained, as is the nature of paradox.

Throughout the four series we see another side of Paris. We catch glimpses of the Place de la Concorde and the Avenue de l'Opera, but most of the Paris we see is of what Michel Foucault once called 'heterotopic spaces'. Urban spaces depleted, off track, abandoned sites, the rather bleak urban topography of Parisian suburbs. And even in the centre of Paris the focus is on the those interstitial zones at the back of buildings, on the edge the city, in subterranean enclaves which remind one of hell. This all goes well with the fabulously handled choppy and fast camera work, when the tension between police and criminals is high (although at certain levels the distinction between criminal and legal activity is blurred) the hand-held shots give a gut-wrenching frisson to such scenes.

Finally I must make mention of one of new additions to the cast. This is in the shape of Judith Chelma, who plays the young and manipulated history student Sophie Mazerat, who is also a terrorist. She is perfectly cast here, although, in her almost feline and Goth looks, she could have come straight out of a 'Grand Guignol' horror fest, having the physical contour of a ravaged Valkyrie. She is the central protagonist in the incredible last scene, mentioned earlier, as the instrument of the terrorist gang she belongs to. But she sustains it with a nervy intensity that has to be seen to be believed. Here we reach a dramatic climax and catastrophic coda which no one, least of all the audience, would have expected. And this on the edge of the seat unpredictability is just one of the qualities which make 'Spiral' so compelling and shocking.

Toscanini in Britain
Toscanini in Britain
by Christopher Dyment
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £30.00

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An invaluable book for all those interested in the great conductor, and in orchestral performance in the 19th and 20th centuries, 11 Dec. 2012
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This review is from: Toscanini in Britain (Hardcover)
One of my greatest regrets is never having seen Toscanini 'live' in concert. In theory I could have seen the great conductor when he came to London in 1952 to conduct there for the last time. But I would have been four years old and I probably would not have understood, or seen much! I remember when I first started to collect LP's in the early 60's I first heard the likes of Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Hermann Scherchen and Klemperer in Beethoven and Brahms. It was only later that I heard Toscanini in Beethoven's 7th ( the NBC 1951 recording). It was something of a revelation for me. I heard here so much orchestral detail missed, or obscured in the other recordings, especially in woodwind,brass and timpani. Also Toscanini played the trio of the third movement Scherzo at a faster tempo than all the others, even Erich Kleiber and Weingartner. But at the time, and still now, it sounded absolutely right. And now when more 'historically aware' conductors play the 7th, they all play the trio (Assai meno presto) at roughly the tempo Toscanini originally chose; this includes the likes of Eliot Gardiner,Norrington, Bruggen, and many others. After that I acquired as many Toscanini recordings as I could, and still do today. I have many books on Toscanini, including the fine biography by Harvey Sachs, who writes the forward to the book I am now reviewing. Dyment's new book on Toscanini in Britain is without doubt one of the finest books on Toscanini to have appeared in recent years. It is scrupulously researched with very informative foot notes etc. I found particularly informative the way Dyment outlines Toscanini's development as a conductor; his early influences, how he came to Covent Garden in 1900 to hear the famous Wagnerian conductor Felix Mottle conduct Gotterdammerung and was put off by the low standards of orchestral playing, sight reading etc. How, on his vacations from La Scala, he would travel around Europe to hear the likes of Richter, Nickisch, Richard Strauss, and others. It seems that the famed Brahms conductor Fritz Steinbach made a lasting impression on the young Toscanini, especially in Brahms. And Dyment concludes the book with a fascinating comparative enquiry into the other conductors who were influenced by Steinbach, especially Fritz Busch and Adrian Boult. The central part of the book is devoted to Toscanini's concerts in London. Beginning in 1930 when he brought the New York Philhamonic to play in London. And later in 1935 when he first conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which had been well trained by Boult. One of the main figures in the book is concert promoter Owen Mase, who developed a more personal relationship with Toscanini and his family. Mase as an excellent negotiator, and one of the few people Toscanini completely trusted. It was largely through the tireless work of Mase that London had the honour of experiencing Toscanini on several occasions with a London orchestra. We learn how meticulous Toscanini was in matters of acoustics, rehearsal time etc. We learn that the 'Maestro', unlike many of his conducting colleagues, really suffered when he conducted, he would be anguished for days at a an orchestral error, particularly if he saw the mistake as one of his own, probably a minute detail which other conductors would ignore. We also learn of the physical afflictions he suffered in his conducting arm and shoulder. I found it fascinating to learn that Mase gave him the score of Elgar's Falstaff to study. What a performance that would have been! But alas it never happened. I did not know that Toscanini recommended Fritz Busch, apparently after Furtwangler, to take over the New York Philharmonic in 1936 (the year Toscanini resigned his post as principal conductor). I had always thought that Busch and Toscanini had a close relationship, but actually Toscanini was on more close terms with the conductors brother, the famous vilonist Adolf Busch. Dyment tells us that the Maestro did not particularly warm to Puccinis 'Il trittico', apart from 'Gianni Schicchi'. I was hoping he would cast some light on why the Maestro never conducted Wagner's Das Rheingold', but I suppose that question would belong to another study? Dyment gives us many examples of the Maestro's critical reception in London. Ernest Newman (who the Maestro also knew well)often wrote, quite accurately, that Toscanini's genius was 'beyond analysis'. And Constant Lambert's ' the same impetuous onrush, the same steady line, the same unobtrusive flexibility' seems capture a great deal of the Maestro's unique conducting qualities. I remember a quote from the late Fischer-Dieskau, who after regretting that Toscanini was the only great conductor he never sung with, praised his conducting on similar lines, a focus on every aspect of a work, phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, articulation of transitions etc, all within a wonderful sense of the works structure, architecture. I was particularly surprised to learn that Toscanini actually preferred Bach's B minor mass to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis! The only reason he never performed the whole of the former work was to do with his uncertainty of baroque performing practices. Dyment dispels the commonly held belief that the Maestro conducted Haydn's 'Oxford' Symphony when he visited Oxford for an honorary degree. But even Toscanini 'experts' still insist that he did!. I like the examples of the Maestro's modesty especially in matters of formal ceremonies; he asked,'will I have to wear a funny hat?', referring to the Oxford degree ceremony. Dyment mentions Donald Tovey several times, and we know that Toscanini admired Tovey's 'Essays in Musical Analysis', but he doesn't tell us whether or not the two great men ever met? Perhaps they never did? All the details of Toscanini's final 1952 visit to the new London Festival Hall to conduct the Philharmonia in Brahms are accurately relayed. Dyments speculation that the fireworks let off from the Festival Hall's roof during the fourth symphony, may have been orchestrated by 'remnants' of an anti Toscanini fascist group seem more plausible than the 'hooligan' argument. My old friend, the late Thomas Heinitz, a devoted Toscanini enthusiast, related to me a conversation he had with the Philarmonia's timpanist James Bradshaw after the last Philharmonia London concert, in which Bradshaw said that Toscanini was the only conductor he had played for who totally understood his instrument. Dyment doesn't mention this, but it is a typical musicians response to the care Toscanini took over instrumental detail. There is also a story relating to the Maestro being displeased at a rehearsal he attended at Covent Garden with Beecham in Verdi's Falstaff. But this is probaby apocryphal?
I was told, probably by Heinitz, that all the great and the good, not just in the musical world, attended the 1952 Festival Hall concerts. We know that these included Boult, Sargent, Colin Davis et al. It would be fascinating to know whether, or not Beecham attended? I think Klemperer did, through his growing associations with Legge's orchestra, but I am not sure? Other more contingent aspects of the Maestro's personality come to light. Why, for instance, did he prefer the Langham Hotel to Claridges?

Dyment provides a full and detailed list of every concert Toscanini gave in London, as well as a discography of the EMI recordings from 1935 - 1951. Also there is a list of Brahms symphony recordings by the likes of Busch, Boult, Gui and Abendroth (all, apart from Abendroth, strongly influenced by Steinbach, especially in Brahms) and of course Toscanini. His mention of rare recordings of Busch with The New York Philharmonic in the Brahms one (incomplete), and a tremendous 'live' recording of Toscanini conducting the 'Tragic Overture' with the BBC SO, are tantalising, to say the least!

I would strongly recommend this book not just to Toscanini enthusiasts, who are now icreasingly few and far between, but also to those who have an interest in the comparative interpretations of great conductors from the past...and to people who are interested in London musical life, mostly pre-2nd World War.Overall the book is a marvellous achievement. As I said meticulously researched, with an obvious admiration for Toscanini which never descends into the hagiographic, as many of the earlier Toscanini 'studies' did, doing no favours for this unique, but very honest and 'human' musician.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 3, 2013 1:01 PM GMT

Bruckner: Symphony 5
Bruckner: Symphony 5
Price: £12.48

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Haitink's variable Bruckner., 10 Aug. 2012
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This review is from: Bruckner: Symphony 5 (Audio CD)
Although Haitink is undoubtedly one of todays most distinguished conductors with long experience in conducting Bruckner with the worlds finest orchestras, for me there is ultimately a sense of his performances, from Beethoven and Bruckner to Mahler and Shostakovich, never quite realizing a true greatness. I know this term is over used, and in a certain sense inaccurate, perhaps a better term would be overall integrity and interpretive honesty, but for now 'greatest' seems fitting, and it certainly registers a recognised semantic charge. To put it rather crudely Haitink 'should' be a 'great' conductor. He certainly has intergrity, and a kind of subjective modesty in concert, with a clear, economic conducting technique in the gestural sense, never any hint of audience pleasing histrionics, sensationalism,or conductorial narcissism. So what is lacking? For me Haitink's predilection for a certain restraint, which can add to a performance of say a Mahler symphony, which unfortuanately often attract conductorial distortion and indulgence. Toscanini often demanded more 'fire', more drama either in rehearsal or in actual performance. And I find this 'fire', dramatic commitment, to be largely lacking in Haitink's conducting.Perhaps too much restraint, too much toning down of a climax say, can be as debilitating as too much interventional excess; distorted dynamics etc. Especially in Bruckner.

This latest Haitink Bruckner five with the superb Bavarian Radio orchestra, very much encapsulates Haitinks strengths and weaknesses. After an ethereal opening adagio the build up to the main allegro is excellently timed, but it needes to be more sharply contoured with more accented brass and timpani. I wasn't overwhelmed in the way I am overwhemled by Gunter Wand, or Hans Rosbaud here. The second subject string melody over pizzicato chords was quite well paced, although there was a slight tendency to to let the pizzicato rhythmic figure sag. The development section here is one of Bruckner's most adavanced, complex and extended. After some contrasting variations based on the opening chorale motive the development takes on the form expansive harmonic blocks which encompass tonalities as remote as D minor, C sharp minor and A major. This magisterial sequence was all well played and paced but I just didn't hear the dramatic transpositions and contrasts, heard with the above mentioned conductors, and more recently in Harnoncourt's superb performance with the Vienna Philharmonic. Likewise the coda to the first movement failed to register any sense of intense expectaion, with rather sluggish rhythms.

The D minor second movement Adagio is undoubtedly the most successful feature of this performance. Haitink realises well that although the tempo marking is Adagio - Sehr langsam ( very slow)the underlying 4 in a bar pulse, initially stated on oboe in juxtaposition with the opening pizzicato triplets - a kind of dual pulse - indicating a noble breadth, but also movement; Bruckner's oft mentioned 'Bewegt'.
The penultimate sequence of this variation movement, before the closing chorale climax led by brass, with elaborately harmonised leaps of a seventh from the opening theme was particularly well contoured and paced by Haitink. The chains of rich counterpoint and dissonance, suggesting the sound of an organ' were most perceptively realized. The descending figure in violins and violas, a quotation from the 'Lacrimosa' from Mozart's Requiem, were beautifully incorporated with a sublime clarity and poignancy.

The D minor Scherzo, with its thematic links to the Adagio, starts in the style of a landler. But as it develops with a kind of double theme juxtaposing the landler rhythm we are cast into darker regions with sharp brass counterpoint, cross-rhythms and shifts in a contrasting tonal range from major to minor. Indeed the movement has about it something of the Walpurgis-Nacht, somthing unsettling, as though Mephistopheles is never far away. Here, and despite predictably good playing, Haitink simply sounds too ponderous, too lumpy. To hear how these staggering, menacing cross - rhythms can sound (ought to sound) listen to the recent recording with Herbert Blomstedt and the equally impressive Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. With Blomstsdt we hear wonderfully incisive and diverse rythmic articulation. With Haitink we hear rather heavy and ponderous rhythmic articulation. There is a mono recording (live) of Haitink's predecessor at the Concertgebouw,Eduard van Beinum, what a difference! With van Beinum and Blomstsdt, in their different ways, we are plunged into the kaleidoscopic vortex of this incredible music. With Haitink we lose track,attention, as though it was rehearsal run-through!

Haitink has a reputation for holding a symphonic structure together. After being disappointed by the Scherzo I was at least expecting a reading of the monumental finale which was structurally coherent, in the way we always axpected and got from a great Bruckner conductor like Dr Klemperer. But, alas, this performance failed to deliver this essential structural, tonal coherence. It all started quite well with the quotes from the previous movements, a reference from Beethoven's model in his Ninth Symphony. But by the time we reach the great fugal sequences - a complex four part fugue - followed by a massive tutti double-fugue traversing tonal variations in F major and G flat and leading to the initiation of the themes which form the huge peroration of the coda, there was a general lack of structual coherence. The symphonic narrative failing to hold together. The fugal sequences are interpolated by a lyrical complex of themes, but increasingly by energetic leaps of an octave, a fifth and a fourth ( the basic intervals favoured by Bruckner )These sequences provide the thrust which subtends the movement, rigorously interrlated with the fugal episodes. But here Haitink seemed unable to register any sense of thrust,of pressing forward. It all sounded rather static and ponderous. Also, from the initiation of the fugal sequences, I wanted to hear a more clear and focused deliniation of the various contrupuntal strands. At times this performance sounded more like a great wash of sound. The great final, when it did come 'the crowning glory of the symphony'- lacked any sense of expectation, no sense of evolving from a vast symphonic narrative, of being unleashed. In itself it was compellingly played, but it lacked that essential tone of long symphonic progression to a staggering coda. This was exacerbated by a kind of toning down of the very last chords as though an element of embarrassment had crept into Haitink's interpretational psyche. This of all symphonic codas!

Those looking for a more didstinctive version of this fascinating symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra would do well to invest in the recent Maazel 'live' recording, like the CD under review also on the orchestra's own label. Maazel's Bruckner 5 is not without its problems. But it is a performance with far more conviction, symphonic unity and thrust. The only problem here is that it is only available as part of complete set of the Bruckner symphonies. But if this is a put off look no further than the Blomstsedt or Harnoncourt, both mentioned above, and both from 'live' concerts.

This latest 'live' Bruckner 5
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 4, 2013 5:24 PM GMT

Concerto Grosso/Brandenburg Concerto No.3 etc.
Concerto Grosso/Brandenburg Concerto No.3 etc.
Price: £12.44

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beecham remembered, 20 May 2012
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How to measure a conductors reputation well over 50 years since his death? Opinions seem to be divided on Beecham. From various articles, reviews and letters to classicle music magazines, especially last year to mark his death 50 years ago. There were, as would be expected, those who couldn't find enough superlatives in praise of Beecham, coming from predictable sources. But there were quite a few from those who felt that although he was an important impresario, he was overrated as a conductor. Lacking the sustainable integrity and lasting global reputation of conductors like: Toscanini, Reiner,Eric Kleiber, Klemperer, Fritz Busch and Monteux. No doubt the arguments for and against Beecham as a conductor will persist well into the future. One way of evaluating a dead conductor's merits is through the recordings they left us both 'live' and in the recording studio. Today no one is doing more to remind us, make us aware of Beechams conducting virtues than Somm, in their 'Beecham Collection' series. As Graham Melville-Mason's very informative accompanying notes tell us this was a concert Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic gave in 1955 in the Festival Hall London. The great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler was to have conducted two concerts at the Festival Hall with his legendary Berlin Philharmonic. Sadly Furtwangler died in November 1954. Beecham agreed to conduct the exact programmes Furtwangler had chosen for the two concerts planned. The music on the present CD was selected from both concerts. The two concerts ended with a grand German symphony; the Brahms No. 1 in C minor for the first concert and Beethoven's 'Eroica' for the second, both Furtwangler specialities. Beecham left us a stylish studio 'Eroica', but he never recorded the Brahms Symphony No.1, peferring the more congenial symphony's two and three. But it would be fascinating to hear what Beecham made of the Brahms 1st Symphony. As far as I know there are no plans to issue this?

The CD opens with a rather old fashioned sounding Concerto Grosso, Op.6, No. 10 in D minor, by Handel. Beecham was a noted Handelian, making many arrangements from Handel's works. The introduction is rather ponderous, with Beecham seemingly unable to sustain the solemn line required. Here Furtwangler's 1944 recording, although old fashioned in its use of a large string section, is far more impressive, it is also better played by the Berlin Philharmonic. Beecham's handling of the first and second 'allegro's' sound rather rushed and bland, the second closing with a huge rallentando The 'air' marked 'lento' is far too slow even for lento, lacking any sense of movement; and the final 'allegro moderato'is played in a rather eccentric sotto voce rush. Throughout the strings of the RPO are not always together, and there is frequent messy ensemble.

I was surprised to read, from Graham Melville-Mason again, that Beecham rarely performed Strauss's early tone poem 'Don Juan'. Beecham was a noted Staussian and knew the composer. One would have thought that 'Don Juan', with its zest,flair and 'swagger' would have been a 'natural' for Beecham. The 'Don Juan recorded here is in many ways a fine performance with plenty of brio, and energy. The initial Allegro molto con brio, is sustained and full of spontaneity, sounding very 'live'. The love scene is beautifully phrased and moulded, with some excellent woodwind and horn playing, the first horn played by none other than Alan Civil. Despite some untidy ensemble everything here is fine, with a superbly timed climax. But the coda, depicting the Don's death, runs into problems. The last two notes are played pizzicato with lower woodwind. I only heard the last of these, the first was out of time and only played on a string pizzicato. Also the very opening of the work, the ascending tutti priapic figure is scrambled. This would seem to contradict Beecham's remark the 'as long as a performance begins well and finishes well that's all that matters'. This performance begins and ends badly, with some superb playing and conducting in between. Melville-Mason tells us that Beecham conducted 'Till Eulenspiegel' more frequently. He never recorded either Don or Till, so this makes the CD a valuable Beecham document. But paradoxically the Till here is less impressive than the Don. Like the Don it is an exciting performance full of 'live' spontaneity, but here the rough ensemble becomes a more persistent problem. Many of the tricky rhythms are smudged, and the cross-rhythms depicting Till Eulenspiegel poking fun at academics virtually fall apart. The concluding trial scene and death sentence must have sounded exciting in a 'live' performance, but for repeated hearings much of this would sound whipped up, and the already mentioned ensemble problems would be a turn-off. The two Strauss tone poems in particular sound as if they were recorded in the Festival Hall choir, with microphones directly over the timpani which sound absurdly loud, so loud as to obscure important woodwind and string detail, thus adding to the ensemble problems

Melville-Mason reminds us of Beecham's negative view of the music of J S Bach; 'Too much counterpoint and what is worse, Protestant counterpoint!' And this Brandenburg concerto No. 3, sounds like a run through with blunt rhythms and no contrast in the first movement, and a final 'Allegro' that begins well with some elegant light string playing, but loses a sense of line towards the end.

It seems incredible that Beecham, as a noted exponent of French music, recorded no Ravel, and very little Debussy. And Melville-Mason tells us that he performed only a handful of Ravel works, and not that frequently. This all the more surprising as the 'Rapsodie espangnole' here is quite superb. If I heard the seductive shimmers of the opening 'Prelude a la Nuit' and not known it was Beecham, I would have thought it to have been Monteux or Reiner at their best. Beecham captures every exotic tone of the score, the dance movement 'Malaguena' in A minor is full of slightly off beat rhythms and sudden abrubt changes of mood, which are caught to stunning perfection here. And the deft, delicate scoring of the Habanera under Beecham sounds as voluptuous and seductive as it should. The concluding 'Feria'with its amazing contrasts in mood, rhythm, and orchetral colour; the chiaroscuro colour of a spanish fair, is here as vivid as could be imagined. And all the reservations about rough ensemble do not apply here in the least. The RPO sounding like a top notch French orchestra. And that strange hybrid instrument the surrusophone can, for once, be heard clearly.

A mixed bag then. Beecham admirers will need no persuasion in obtaining this CD. Those who want fine modern recordings of the two Strauss early tone poems need look no further than Reiner, Kempe, Blomstedt and if mono sound is no problem Toscanini. And now there are myriad recorded versions of 'period' performances of the Bach and Handel pieces, all sounding more like what the composer would have heard and expected. But as I said the superb Rapsodie espagnol is quite unique, making this CD worth buying for the Ravel alone. And despite my reservations the two Strauss tone poems are hugely enjoyable as 'live' events, especially Don Juan, proving that Beecham could be a 'great' conductor,if not ultimately on such a sustained level as a Toscanini, Reiner, or Klemperer.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 21, 2012 5:25 PM BST

Lourdes [DVD]
Lourdes [DVD]
Dvd ~ Sylvie Testud
Offered by The World Cinema Store
Price: £5.99

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Less is more!, 11 Mar. 2012
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This review is from: Lourdes [DVD] (DVD)
Having been impressed with Austrian film maker Jessica Hausner's 'Hotel' and 'Lovely Rita'my hopes were high for 'Lourdes'. If anything I found Lourdes even more fascinating. And after watching it at least six times I have found fresh insights and subtleties on each viewing. I have chosen the rather cryptic title (in relation to the film as film) because it is the absolute antithesis of atandard Hollywood fare. Hausner never rams home a cinematic point, or a particular idea, ideology. It is an eminently 'adult' film, and here I certainly don't mean adult in terms of film rating, but adult in the sense that Hausner leaves a space of uncertainty, undecidability, for the viewer to make her or his interpretations, conclusions. She is addressing an intelligent, observent, perceptive viewer. I would suspect some would watch the film and complain that not much happened! But in reality a great deal is 'happening'. Much more than I thought a film could project. In a sense her fellow Austrian Michael Haneke also makes films which, at many levels, are left open for the viewer. But whereas Haneke's cinema focuses on extreme, often violent human complexities, Hausner draws attention to to the ostensibly more subtle, or everyday impressions of human contexts and responses, both affective and critical. And although there is nothing one could call 'everyday' or quotidian about Lourdes; its southern French location and reputation as a Catholic sanctuary of healing, Hausner projects a constellation of characters, their very human contradictions,ambiguities,negative and positive character traits. One of its more substantive, themes are the antinomies between a hope for a physical cure from a particular malady, and the theological focus on the healing of the 'soul'as a condition of miracle cures. At several points pilgrims confront the Priest to enquire about the conditions for a miracle cure, a release from physical pain and infirmity, only to receive the rather vague reply that a pysical cure is only an effect of an enriched soul, a coming closer to divinity. Of course the questioners look rather confused, and dissatisfied by such numinous responses. And as the film progresses the responses to questions around divine selectivity in matters of healing, become more cliche'd and platitudinous. God works in mysterious ways!

The young woman Pilgrim Christine, superbly played by Sylvie Testud, is the central character. In fact I would go beyond this and contend that she is the vector around which all the films other ironies, twists, turns, character situations both evolve and revolve. Much of what happens in the film is from Chritine's point of view. But we also know Christine, not so much from what she says, but from her facial expressions and bodily comportment. The first scene were Christine(confined to a wheelchair with MS)is being fed by her young nurse Marie,she,Christine,turns around and smiles as though at us the viewers. The first impression here is of a beautiful young woman's innocent, spontaneous smile. But throughout Christine's smile seems variously contrived (as though she has been trained to smile),impish,even a little provocative and mischievious,ironic,but also full of humility and poignancy, another theme the film touches upon. She is a kind of woman-child, but not altogether. With this focus on visage, mostly on Christine, but also on the senior nurse Cecile, I was reminded a few times of Falconetti in Dreyer's classic la Pucelle film. But Hausner's mise-en-scene has none of Dreyer's mannered expressionism. Christine tells her Nurse that she came to Lourdes not so much in the hope of a miracle cure, but as a chance to travel, to meet new people, to break her sense of confinement. One reviewer wrote that Christine claimed that she was not a believer. After watching the film very carefully I can cinfirm that Chrstine does not actually make this claim. But it is certainly implied. We learn that Christine is a most candid individual. The Confession scene tells a lot about Christine in relation the films many leitmotives. She tells the priest that she is angry that she cannot lead a normal life. Also that she feels envy for those around her who do. That she does not feel pity for those in a worse condition than she. She is human, all to human! Her simple point here is that she wants to be an ordinary active young woman. The priest's rhetoric around the soul, what God ordaines, and that she is unique, presumably as chosen by God, is of little consolation to her. The wish to be normal, ordinary is depicted in many scenes, as when Christine quasi flirts with an older male helper Kuno, and looks jealous when she sees Marie chatting up Kuno; also another wonderful scene, when she has been 'cured', and is totally enjoying a chocolate sundae al - fresco. But this normal life she longs for, to derive such pleasure in the simple joys of life, and with such humility, makes her very extraordinary. Another very telling scene is where after she seems to be cured, and can get up and walk etc, she is asked whether she felt some divine 'illumination' engulfing her inner being ( or words to that effect) she simply replies 'no not really' to the consternation of the priest, and to her fear that she might have broken some divine rule. Another crucial moment is when Christine, after her cure, learns from one of the in house doctors that temporary improvement in her condition, followed by regression is quite normal. Obviously both the priest and Christine play this down. Although I had the feeling, especially in the last dance scene, where she is dancing with Kuno but collapses, stunned but quickly getting up and refusing her walking stick, that she knows deep down that her remission may only be temporary, but is simply glad to sieze her chance to be normally active, if only for a brief period.

The films actual location at Lourdes, Hausner getting special permission to film there, provides most of the mis-en-scene replete with outdoor excursion scenes with the resplendent Pyrenees mountain range clearly visible. We are given rare glimpses into the dormitaries, the anointment chambers, and the huge Lourdes Basilica. These scenes are juxtaposed with the commercial outlets at Lourdes whith all manner of religious paraphernalia on sale as a kind of sardonic antidote to the the tone of peity generated.The lack of piety is also shown in the scenes where the young female helpers are ignoring pious protocl chatting and giggling, all noticed by Christine, who really wishes she were ordinary like them. The sardonic tone is also voiced by some of the pilgrims relating to Christine's cure, 'she wasn't particularly pious' as one of the older women exclaimes. Why her and not someone more deserving? And when Chritine collapses in the final dance scene there follow comments as to the authenticity of the cure shot through with shades of schadenfreud.

Most reviews have commented on the documentary style of the film. This partly true. Although the already mentioned focus on Christine's, and other facial contours are far from documentary. Also I noted a painterly influence in at least one scene. Early on in the film Christine is chatting with some of the other pilgrims and for a few muinutes seems to lapse into a coma. As attempts are made to recover her nurse Cecile stands there with a rather severe expression I thought reminiscent of the expression of the Madonna in Masaccio's monumental and austere Trinity in the Santa Maria Novella in Florence. And I was particulay struck by the effective use of Bach's Choral Prelude 'Ich ruf dir, Herr Jesu Christ' from the Orgelbuchlein, used mostly in scenes where Christine is anointed with curative water. This sublime music has been used in other films. But I was particularly taken by the the way that Tarkovsky used it in 'Solaris' in relation to Hausner's film. The Tarkovsky's science fiction film is of course very different from Hausner's film. But it is fascinating to observe that both films, despite their differences, deal with states of ontological ambiguity. Astronaut Kelvin's late wife, in Solaris, has parallels with Christine. In both we are unsure whether their existence has been mediated by some extra-terrestial force.

I could go on and make more visual, literary paralles with, for instance, the strange scene where nurse Cecile collapses revealing her bald head and is taken away on a stretcher. Whether bald by shaving, or illness is not made clear. Although the films many outstanding virtues, not least its economy, work on myriad levels, it is finally Sylvie Testud's wonderfully diverse and moving portrayal of Christine, her sensitivity, her simple joy in wanting to live,her extraordinary ordinarines, her humility, which make this film very moving and special.
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Schubert - Symphony No. 9 (Great) in C major; Five German Dances
Schubert - Symphony No. 9 (Great) in C major; Five German Dances
Price: £13.57

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Variable Schubert from Fischer, 4 Dec. 2011
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This Budapest Schubert 'Great' C major Symphony received very high critical acclaim when it was issued earlier this year with many reviewers declaring it the best overall modern recording of this classic. And indeed it has many fine qualities; natural horns; beautifully articulated and played woodwind ensemble; and as always is the case with this orchestra the strings have a wonderful grainy,quality, not too plush as is the case with some highly regarded Western European and American orchestras. Tempi generally follow the score, as do dynamic markings. From the very opening C major horn call, on two natural valveless horns, I was enchanted. And indeed the rest of the first movement was very well paced, never rigid, with more orchestral detail than is usually heard, but it was detail which was never underlined , developing naturally from the wider structural contour of the music. And the G major second subject had a wonderful lilt to it. I could have done with more dramatic, rhythmic thrust at the recapitulation, and more triumphant grandeur in the coda but overall this is very distinguished conducting and playing. Similarly the second movement had many wonderful moments, The main Andante con moto was excactly that, a march theme with plenty of movement, never very distant from that other late masterpiece 'Winterreise'!The great A minor climax was well prepared, although ulimately for me it needed more dramatic power, more shock. But the following beautifully phrased A major theme on celli almost compensated for this.

More than most performances of this work the Scherzo sounded quite heavy with rather bulolic, blunt rhyhthms. I suppose one could argue that the 'landler' elements in this movement warrant such an approach. But it hardly sounds Allegro vivace, as marked! To confirm this impression I played the wonderful old 1959 recording with Krips and then LSO. What a difference! There is plenty of power here, but what elegance and superbly buoyant rhythmic inflection. Also Krips invests the music with a wonderfully sounding Viennese lilt, particularly in the richly songful trio.

Fischer wisely maintains a steady allegro tempo throughout the great finale. And as would be expected from these forces every rhythmic inflection and lyrical/dynamic gradation is crystal clear with a splendidly sounding and exciting coda. But ulimately I felt that something was missing, everything sounding a tad superficial. I think it was the element of sheer rythmic energy and viality that was lacking. But also an underlying sense of menace in this almost manic music. Manic that is in what Tovey once called its repeated four-note figure seeming to strech itself 'ad infinitum'. Also I felt none of Tovey's dark 'terrifying power' here, nothing of the 'grotesque'. To check this out I played the old, long deleted, recording of a 1940 'live' performance with the then Concertgebouw Orchestra with Mengelberg. Compared with Fischer Mengelberg's dynamics, rhythms, sounded exagerrated, but what a sense of drama, of dark power and suspense Mengelberg unleashed here! the coda sounding truly cosmic in its 'grotesque' and un-nerving force. On the question of repeats Fischer, surprisingly, only observes the repeats in the scherzo, making the movement sound disproportionately long in relation to the wider symphonic strucure.

For a modern recording of this symphony I would recommend either the 'live' version with Gunter Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic, or any of the several versions from the late Sir Charles Mackerras. But the really 'great' performances on record are all from dead conductors. If you can still get them go for Klemperer's 1960 Philharmonia version, which is unsurpassed in its dark, menacing, monumental grandeur; the already mentioned Krips recording for its overall freshness, charm and lryricism, and the the 1941 Toscanini recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra, if you want fire and drama beautifully contrasted with full-throated songful lyricism.

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